La Nouvelle Vague

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“Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.” – Antoine Doinel

La Nouvelle Vague or the French New Wave that swept through France in the late 1950’s resulted in a number of acclaimed films made by a handful of talented young filmmakers. Of these artists, François Truffaut entered the cinematic stage with his feature film, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) in 1959. The film portrays Truffaut’s childhood, as a preteen, recreated. As played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the film’s protagonist, Antoine Doinel, comes to us as this re-imagined figure. Throughout the course of the film the young character becomes isolated and misunderstood by his parents, schoolteachers, and, subsequently, the rest of society. The 400 Blows follows the story of an adolescent boy and his unlucky positioning in his relationships with authority figures. Antoine is not the only schoolboy to misbehave; though it seems as though he is the only one to get caught. Even Antoine’s comrade, who accompanies him on many of his defiant escapades, is never reprimanded.

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Through experimental camera angles, extended shots, and naturalistic lighting, Truffaut explores an almost cynical, yet extremely realistic journey of a young adolescent and his “gradual disaffection” from his family and society (Croce 35). Truffaut’s ironic visual representation of juvenile curiosity, naïveté, and rebelliousness reveals to his audience the corruption and humiliation French society forced on its youth.

The irony in Truffaut’s depiction of Antoine is clear from the first scene of the film and becomes representative of Antoine’s isolation within society. In this early scene, the camera looks down on the children, panning over them to follow the transfer of a pin-up photo from boy to boy. Of course, it is Antoine who gets caught with this photo, marking the beginning of his bad luck on camera. As Henry B. Maloney argues, “Truffaut tells his story with a screen full of ironies” (563). In his review of The 400 Blows, Maloney successfully catalogues these ironic points in the film where:

[Antoine leaves] the abandoned factory where he had intended to spend the night after running away from home. He dispiritedly walks by a window with “Joyeux Noel” lettered on it. He is expelled from school for plagiarism because he has read Balzac so intently that he memorizes a section of it. He is caught, not while stealing a typewriter, but while attempting to return it (563).

Antoine’s isolation is the affect of his overwhelming misfortune of getting into trouble; yet Truffaut’s cinematic focus on Antoine heightens the audience’s sense of this isolation. There are scenes in the film where Antoine is silent, his parents are yelling at one another, and yet the camera remains focused on him. The long, extended shots focused on Antoine serve to put the audience in the perspective of the boy, realistically and without any interruptions. Having said this, The 400 Blows “isn’t sentimental,” as Arlene Croce points out (35). Though the film’s point of view is almost always fixated on Antoine, it is for purpose of realism over melodrama.

In his interview with Paul Ronder, Truffaut states that, “I made [the] film in a very instinctive way… much of the film was essentially a documentary, and this necessitated an enormous neutrality on my part” (5-6). He continues by asserting: “The film I made was without form, neutral – since my direction of it was as objective as possible and corresponded almost to a self-effacement” (6). The 400 Blows is, therefore, a modest representation of adolescence. Truffaut’s “simplicity” allows for the underlying message to take center-stage, without disruption (6). The film is a harsh reality in itself; it is a portrayal “about the suffering an average schoolboy must endure if he has the bad luck to be considered a criminal by both his family and the state,” and because “he represents the burden of an impossible marriage, he is [condemned] to the vice-ridden world of adults” (Croce 35).

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With this, Truffaut effectively speaks out against the society in which Antoine lives. The conflicting groups of authority in the film put extreme pressure on Antoine to fit in and stay compliant. Though The 400 Blows remains focused on Antoine, the film’s message speaks to a wider social issue of the time. While within the context of the film Antoine seems to be the only child to get caught, it is clear that Truffaut’s reasoning of this is to create a cinematic aura of isolation over importance. For example, Antoine isn’t the only child to misbehave and he is in no way ‘special.’ An interesting scene in the middle of the film shows a gym teacher with his whistle blowing and students following or at least, so the teacher assumes. As “[t]he camera falls back to a distance shot, presumably from atop a building, [it watches] contentedly as boys sneak out of line in twos and threes while the teacher trots along waving his arms, oblivious to anything except the satisfaction of his own exertions” (Maloney 563). It is in this scene that the audience comes face-to-face with the reality of Antoine’s dilemma and how easily it could happen to any child within the same context.

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Antoine “is a straw tossed by twin hurricanes: his family and society. His crime is trivial; his capture is ironic. The treatment he receives is heartless and unreasonable” (Shatnoff 4). Antoine’s reality in the film was the reality in… reality. As Truffaut puts it, “I will never again find a subject as direct, as strongly felt, nor one which provides me with so little choice” (Ronder 6). France – especially at the time of the New Wave – was experiencing back lash from the war: “French law [was] brutal and perverse: a man is guilty until he proves himself innocent; a man can be held incommunicado for days in one of those clever chicken-cages, shown in the film, in which young, old, murderers, maniacs, pickpockets, traffic violators, are thrown together indiscriminately” (Shatnoff 4). The construct of society at this time made it plausible for a child’s innocence to be completely defeated; in contrast to heartwarming coming-of-age stories, The 400 Blows is brutally realistic.

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The infamous revolving drum-scene “injects the first disturbing note,” and may signify an allegory for the chaotic shifting of authoritative responsibility over Antoine within French society. Antoine’s parents are both figures of authority, but each one disagrees with and blames the other, and conflict arises when neither parent can discern who holds responsibility over who in giving Antoine money; teachers comment amongst themselves regarding parents’ lack of authority over children; police officer A shifts his authority over to police officer B because police officer A wants to go home; and the judge, seen near the end of the film, blames the mother and father for Antoine’s predicament. This infamous drum-scene “is, perhaps, a presentiment of [this] brutalization. A small, blurred figure flattened on the side of an enormous whirling cylinder, and the cylinder turning in the expanse of the widescreen – for a moment the film itself seems to be out of control” (Croce 36). And yet this chaotic, constrained scene emulates the perfect contrast to the final scene of the movie.

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The infamous revolving drum-scene… may signify an allegory for the chaotic shifting of authoritative responsibility over Antoine within French society.

In this last scene, it seems Antoine is finally able to break free from all restraints of society. The film’s protagonist is beautifully captured running in an extended shot for 3 minutes and 43 seconds to the same music that is played during another extended shot of Paris’ streets in opening credits of the film. The parallel between the opening and final scene of the film perhaps signifies the relationship between Paris as the city and Antoine as an adolescent free from that city – a city filled with corruption, immorality, and humiliation. Here, Truffaut is possibly suggesting that “a society which has always prided itself on its rational base, is really inhuman; that to fear this society is not paranoiac, but logical and necessary” – to run from this society, as Antoine does by the end, is the only way to achieve freedom (Shatnoff 4).

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Truffaut’s reformation of his own childhood serves not as a cinematic parade on ego, but rather a simple, yet brutally raw story concerning the relationship between adolescence and society. The film’s dark and natural lighting, long shots, and brilliantly fresh acting by Jean-Pierre Léaud attribute to the height of the overarching message in The 400 Blows. Although the film’s shots are focused mainly on Antoine, Truffaut shows his audience the extreme possibility that any child in French society could be exposed to isolation and immorality; thus, the camera steadily scans over the disobedience of the other children in the film and then pulls in the audience’s attention to Antoine.

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By the end however, it is not the audience’s attention that is drawn to Antoine but his attention that is drawn to the audience. In the final scene, Antoine looks at the viewer in a chilling moment that reveals the severity and scope of the issue. Truffaut’s brilliant masterpiece, The 400 Blows, leaves the audience with no room to sigh, only to think. We are left with a young boy, beaten down by his society, staring at us in the eye. The only thing that is left to question is: Have we done this?

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Works Cited

Croce, Arlene. “Review: Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) by François Truffaut.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3. University of California Press: Spring 1960. 35-38. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).

Maloney, Henry B. “Especially for Teachers.” The Clearing House. Vol. 34, No. 9. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: May 1960. 563-564. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).

Ronder, Paul and François Truffaut. “François Truffaut: An Interview.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 17, No.1. University of California Press: Autumn 1963. 3-13. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015)

Shatnoff, Judith. “François Truffaut: The Anarchist Imagination.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 16, No.3. University of California Press: Spring 1963. 3-11. Web. www.jstor.org (accessed January 27, 2015).

Plato’s Republic, Book X and Ion: the Never-ending Dualism

Boldini Giovanni's Reading in Bed

Boldini Giovanni, Reading in Bed

The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does and judge only by colours and figures (Republic Book X).

And what they say is true, for a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him (Ion).

As in Plato’s Republic, much of the Ion seems involved with undermining the poet (or painter) as an individual, and the process of poetry (or painting) as a whole. Either the process is imitative or it is not a process at all, and it is surely not a valid human endeavour. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates simply shuns poetry as an art, calling it an imitation of a copy of the truth; Plato’s Ion, however, esteems the poet (the ‘good one,’ anyway) as the individual who contains the gift of being “inspired, possessed” (Richter 41). Still though, poets are left hanging amidst the stigma that they do not really do any work. Sure, you have a gift, says Socrates, but your gift is that of possession “by the divinity to whom [you] are in bondage” (41) – i.e., as a poet, you are never able to do anything until that moment of inspiration (which again, is not your own intrinsic doing) when you transcend and may begin spewing out ideas, experiences, and occurrences that aren’t really your own. These ideas are mere interpretations of the gods thanks to your gift.

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Just so the Muse. She first makes men inspired, and then through these inspired ones others share in the enthusiasm, and a chain is formed, for the epic poets, all the good ones, have their excellence, not from art, but are inspired, possessed, and thus they utter all these admirable poems (Ion).

Now, while I sit here with a clenched-tooth grin recalling the various people who have shared the belief that art and literature are superfluous and of little value to society, I must remember my own experiences as a creative individual: inspiration is true enough – that single, brilliant idea or premise holding a piece together – but as a creative writer, I view poetry, prose, etc. as a process…

It is a process that requires long hours, multiple revisions, and work. That “precious revelation” holds a weight of its own of course, but it takes training and technique to turn that revelation into a literary experience that is worthwhile (41). And with the mention of worth, the question of value comes up. We are made to ask: Is art practical? Does it need to be? What is of value? What is useful? (today’s world seems to be straying farther and farther away from the arts). Socrates’ aim at answering this, however, creates the infamous dichotomy.

Through Plato’s depiction, Socrates acts on his dualistic tendencies and splits the human soul into two – the rational and the emotional – by asking: “Then that part of the soul which has an opinion contrary to measure can hardly be the same with that which has an opinion in accordance to measure?” By which we are supposed to answer, “Certainly.” Further Socrates asks, “The part of the soul which trusts to measure and calculation is likely to be the better one?” And again we are supposed to answer “Certainly” (35). But call me irrational because I get more from reading Thomas Hardy or T.S Eliot than measuring the length of a stick.

Works Cited

Plato. Republic, Book X. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 30-8. Print.

— Ion. The Critical Tradition:  Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Trans. Lane Cooper. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 38-46. Print.